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Whitney Underwood, the student speaker at the College of Science commencement ceremony on Dec. 13, could have easily been a statistic.

She grew up in a low-income, single-parent household in rural Grayson, Kentucky. As a first-generation college student, the higher education experience remained a mystery until she enrolled at EKU.

“I had to overcome a trial every single year, every single day, every single minute to beat that statistic,” Underwood told her fellow graduates. “I had to learn how to bloom and grow in an environment that was foreign to me.”

But Underwood soon discovered that college is for dreamers, not just those with means. “At Eastern Kentucky University, I didn’t just bloom,” she said. “I thrived.”

Underwood’s Eastern experience, she said, prompted her transformation from a nervous first-generation student to a confident young professional. One catalyst for that change was the opportunity to intern with Walt Disney World, working at Epcot in the Food and Wine Festival.

“Without the confidence I gained at EKU, I would have never even applied for the national internship,” she said.

Underwood graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biomedical sciences with a concentration in pre-physician’s assistant studies and a minor in psychology. She has long dreamed of serving patients in rural Appalachia as a physician’s assistant, and she sees her new title of EKU alumni as a call to live out those dreams. She summed up her ambitions with a quote from the nighttime show at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom:

“Each of us has a dream, a heart’s desire. It calls to us,” she recited. “And when we’re brave enough to listen, and bold enough to pursue, that dream will lead us on a journey to discover who we’re meant to be. All we have to do is look inside our hearts and unlock the magic within.”

After graduation, Underwood plans to enroll in the University of Kentucky’s physician’s assistant program on the Morehead campus. To close her time at the institution that helped her thrive, she left the audience with a quote from the end of that same Magic Kingdom show:

“And so, our journey comes to an end, but yours continues on. Grab ahold of your dreams and make them come true. For you are the key to unlocking your own magic. Now go, let your dreams guide you. Reach out and find your happily ever after.”

Watch the full speech below: